11:47 PM ET
David M. HaleESPN Staff Writer
- ACC reporter.
- Joined ESPN in 2012.
- Graduate of the University of Delaware.
Alabama is mortal. This makes sense intuitively, because Nick Saban is human and his players are human. But throughout the final three quarters of that 31-29 showdown in the Swamp, Alabama wasn’t just theoretically mortal. Instead, its flaws were visible.
The ground game ran into its share of brick walls against Brenton Cox Jr. and the Florida defensive front, though Brian Robinson Jr. and Jase McClellan ultimately converted the key third-down runs Alabama needed.
Crimson Tide quarterback Bryce Young seemed overwhelmed at times by the deafening Florida crowd, though his three TD passes in the first quarter gave the Tide the cushion it needed to survive.
The defense bent often and broke occasionally throughout a frenetic and physical second half, but when Florida needed a two-point conversion to tie the game with 3:10 left to play, Bama made the stop.
And Florida exposed these cracks with the QB its fans wanted benched, with a defensive coordinator who has spent a decade as an SEC punchline. There was nothing fancy like date night at Applebee’s (why, why won’t that song go away?), just relentless, physical football. And the Gators came oh-so-close to ripping the top off this college football season.
People often forget Rocky lost his first fight with Apollo Creed, and Taylor Swift still took home the 2009 VMA, despite Kanye West’s eloquent plea for Beyoncé. There are no moral victories, only losses with upside.
Florida suffered a loss Saturday, but there was upside — for the Gators, and also for the world of college football. It’s no surprise, Florida wants a rematch. If Dan Mullen is Darth Vader, it’s not until the second movie that he cuts off Luke’s hand and encases Bryce Young in carbonite. Alabama is mortal and, as the wise philosopher Lloyd Christmas once suggested, we’re telling you there’s a chance.
There’s a chance Alabama won’t dominate the sport again as it did in 2020, as it has with few exceptions for the past 13 seasons. There’s a chance that all the coaching turnover and all the early departures to the NFL and the endless targets pinned to the players’ chests will finally catch up with the Tide.
There’s a chance this season could be defined by the next wave of contenders. Oregon, Texas A&M, Georgia and Iowa all won easily. Penn State smothered Auburn in a sea of white, so confident of its dominance it could afford to punt on third down. James Franklin can now rightly ask USC to put another zero on that contract offer. It helped that Auburn used an old Gus Malzahn playbook on that final goal-to-go drive.
There’s a chance that, for the first time in years, some true underdogs could find their way to the penthouse. Cincinnati made its case against a Power 5 foe. Michigan State is 3-0. Michigan has been dominant. Rutgers has given New Jersey nearly as much to look forward to as the new Sopranos movie.
These are heady times in college football. Through three weeks, 18 ranked teams have lost — a record in the AP poll era, according to ESPN Stats & Information research. And if Saturday didn’t reshuffle the deck, it at least showed the game wasn’t rigged and the house doesn’t always win. (In this analogy, Kansas is chain-smoking at the penny slots.)
But, there’s an even greater chance that Saban was simply toying with us, convincing us to let our guard down, giving his team a quick dose of rat poison repellant before Alabama again emerges as an unstoppable force overwhelming the college football season with the same ferocity as that horrific Applebee’s commercial (please, make it stop!).
This is still Alabama, after all. Saban and Co. are just fine watching you celebrate a moral victory. They’ll take the ones that count in the standings.
Clemson’s offense is sputtering. Ohio State’s defense is a mess. Spencer Rattler‘s Heisman hopes are running thin. Is it time for fans to panic? We dig into the numbers to find out.
Panic level: There’s an anvil hanging by a thread
We’re three games into the season, and D.J. Uiagalelei has more interceptions than TDs. The ground game has gone nowhere. Against two FBS foes, Clemson has a grand total of two touchdowns. It’s one thing to struggle against an elite Georgia defense. It’s one thing to play a bit flat against an FCS opponent. It’s another thing to have seven points on the board midway through the fourth quarter against Georgia Tech, a team that lost to Northern Illinois. The lack of a downfield passing game (Clemson didn’t have a completion of more than 17 yards Saturday) and the inability for the offensive line to open running lanes (the Tigers averaged 4 yards per carry) has put offensive coordinator Tony Elliott in an impossible position. Uiagalelei has a huge arm, but if there’s no one open downfield, it doesn’t matter. Will Shipley is an emerging star, but he can’t consistently move through a stacked box. Without another big-stage game left on the schedule, Clemson needs style points. Right now, Clemson’s style amounts to cargo shorts and a fanny pack.
Panic level: The check engine light is on
Rattler is clearly a talented QB with tons of upside, but the bar for Lincoln Riley QBs is set awfully high, and thus far, he has hovered well beneath it. Rattler was a pedestrian 23-of-34 for 214 yards and a TD in a 23-16 win over Nebraska, a second subpar effort after narrowly edging Tulane in the opener. But it goes back further than that. During Lincoln Riley’s first 39 games, Oklahoma topped 500 yards of offense 31 times. It has hit that mark in just six of its past 17 dating back to 2019, however, and Rattler has only done it against Texas Tech, Kansas, Kansas State (in a loss), and two FCS opponents, as well as last year’s bowl win over a disinterested Florida. So what gives? Has Riley lost his touch? Is Rattler failing to live up to his potential? Is it just those tough SEC defenses getting in Oklahoma’s head before it has even joined the league? For now, we’ll call it a blip. There’s still a pretty thin Big 12 schedule ahead and plenty of time to get right.
Cincinnati’s playoff hopes
Panic level: Did we remember to turn the oven off?
Here’s the problem with using strength of schedule to determine playoff rankings: Cincinnati landed what should be an impressive win on the road at Indiana that included a dominant second half. But what if Indiana isn’t quite the team it was a year ago? The Bearcats should be able to earn a statement win for the committee in two weeks when they travel to Notre Dame. Only, the Irish have looked lackluster, at best, so far this year. What about that UCF game on Oct. 16? There’s not much shine left on the Golden Knights after Friday’s loss to Louisville. This was supposed to be the first year the Group of 5 had a real playoff challenger with a schedule worthy of consideration — but team’s don’t control what their opposition does in those other 11 games. The Bearcats sure looked like they were capable of playing with anyone during a near-flawless fourth quarter against the Hoosiers, but don’t be shocked if we’re hearing the same old refrain about lackluster competition when the first set of rankings is revealed.
Panic level: Our portfolio is heavy on GameStop
Jack Coan has been good. Through three games, the Wisconsin transfer is averaging 8.5 yards per pass with eight touchdowns and just two picks — one of which was a last-second heave at the end of regulation against Florida State. But that doesn’t mean the Irish don’t miss Ian Book. The problem? The O-line. While Book was exceptional at extending plays, scurrying out of the pocket and scrambling when he needed to, Coan is simply not a runner. And last year’s Irish line was exceptional, with three members selected in the first three rounds of this year’s draft. Now? Up front, the Irish have struggled. Coan has been pressured regularly, and setting aside Kyren Williams‘ 51-yard TD run late in Saturday’s 27-13 win over Purdue, the ground game mustered just 69 yards on 33 carries. The next few defenses — Wisconsin, Cincinnati and Virginia Tech — are much tougher than Purdue’s. Things could get ugly fast for the Irish if the O-line doesn’t take a big step forward.
Panic level: The flight attendant is twirling a roll of duct tape
The good news: Ohio State racked up 316 yards on the ground against Tulsa — a 41-20 win that was much closer than the final score suggests — just 13 yards less than it had in its first two games combined. The bad news: That revamped defense still struggled, surrendering 428 yards through the air, one week after giving up 269 on the ground. If the defensive scheme is going to be some version of whack-a-mole each week, the Buckeyes could be waving goodbye to their playoff hopes by the end of October. Worse … Michigan might be good. The horror. The horror.
The Ducks stand alone
Here’s the good news for the Pac-12: The league has a legitimate playoff contender in Oregon.
The bad news? Everything else.
The Ducks are now the Pac-12’s lone undefeated team after Arizona State and UCLA both lost Saturday. Combined with Arizona’s loss to Northern Arizona, the Pac-12 finishes Week 3 having compiled a woeful 16-16 record in out-of-conference games, including 10 losses against teams outside the Power 5.
UCLA’s loss was particularly galling. The Bruins blew two leads in the final three minutes of the game, including surrendering a six-play, 75-yard TD drive to Fresno State in 40 seconds. On the upside, because the ending came at 2:30 a.m. Eastern and it was on the poorly distributed Pac-12 Network, almost nobody saw it.
The new Bowden Bowl
If Florida State’s miserable performance in a 35-14 loss to Wake Forest and the Seminoles’ first 0-3 start since 1976 didn’t convince its fans to stab forks through their eyes, they got the chance to tune in to another dismal slog with big FSU implications.
Bobby Bowden’s son, Terry, led Louisiana-Monroe to a 12-7 win over Jackson State, a team coached by arguably Bobby Bowden’s best all-time player, Deion Sanders.
Was it vintage Bowden-era FSU? Ah, no. The two teams combined for just 390 yards of offense, and ULM became the first FBS team to win a game without scoring a touchdown since San Diego State in 2019. And yet, FSU fans still would’ve enjoyed this experience more than their own game.
It’s a Sparty Party
Michigan State is 3-0 for the first time since 2015, the year it made the College Football Playoff. It beat Miami 38-17 on Saturday, the third straight time the Spartans have scored at least 38 this season. In fact, Sparty hit that mark just three times total from 2018 to 2020. They have new life behind QB Payton Thorne (four passing TDs Saturday), have a dominant running back in Wake Forest transfer Kenneth Walker III (172 yards rushing) and a stingy defense.
In other words, the Big Ten might have a legitimate surprise team on its hands.
Of course, the Spartans’ three wins have also come against a team whose season highlight involved a free-falling cat, an FCS foe and a Big Ten opponent that lost to Duke on Saturday. So perhaps we can temper the enthusiasm just a tad.
But here’s a hot take we hope you’ll forget when it looks silly years from now: We’re always wondering who might ultimately replace Nick Saban at Alabama (likely in 2063 after the Tide wins the national championship on the moon), and Mel Tucker should probably hold a prominent space in that conversation. He has spent two stints with Saban (at LSU and Alabama), coached defense for three years in the SEC (at Georgia) and has a decade of experience in the NFL. While most of the other oft-mentioned names either seem unlikely to want to succeed a legend (Dabo Swinney, Kirby Smart) or unqualified for the job, Tucker might be a name to watch in the years to come. Still, our prediction remains a Saban hologram powered by some sort of artificial intelligence he designed while killing time between recruiting visits.
We’ll always have 7-0
A week ago, Colorado scored a touchdown late in the first quarter against Texas A&M and went on to push the No. 5 Aggies to the brink before ultimately falling 10-7.
Those were high times for the Buffaloes.
Since taking that 7-0 lead, Colorado has run 93 plays and mustered a measly 226 yards — 2.43 per play — and a grand total of zero points.
Saturday’s 30-0 loss to Minnesota was particularly galling. Colorado finished with -19 yards on the ground and just 63 total yards for the game. That was the lowest yardage output by a Power 5 team since Kansas managed just 21 against TCU in 2017.
Week 3 shoutouts
This is a glass-half-full column, so here’s a little positive energy for some programs in need of a boost.
Congrats to … UConn!
Sure, UConn lost Saturday in yet another blowout — this time, 52-21 to Army — but on the Huskies’ 34th drive of the season against FBS competition, they finally scored points. The celebration in Storrs will long be remembered, and the statue commemorating Tyler Phommachanh‘s miracle (it’ll be made of popsicle sticks and elbow macaroni) should be done by week’s end.
Mad props to … Long Island University!
LIU’s grueling three-game stretch versus FBS teams has mercifully come to an end after a 42-7 loss to Miami (Ohio). For the Sharks (that’s their name, we looked it up), that brings the combined score through an 0-3 start to 156-17. The good news is we finally know where all those Division I offers for Bishop Sycamore players came from. But unlike that makeshift high school, Long Island has an excellent academic reputation with, we assume, programs like Billy Joel studies and iced tea chemistry.
A tip of the cap to … USC!
Oh, sure, Saturday’s big 45-14 win at Washington State marked a nice turning point in the Trojans’ first game after firing Clay Helton. That they did it after starting down 14-0 and without QB Kedon Slovis, who left because of an injury, is even better news. But what we really love about USC’s Saturday is this: The Trojans are now the rare team that, when someone says, “Remember that time that wild thing that happened on an airport tarmac,” a person can reasonably reply, “Which one?“
When’s the last time so many preseason contenders have fallen off the radar so badly three weeks into the season? Rattler, Uiagalelei, Sam Howell, Tate Martell (wait, no, not him) — it’s been a struggle for all of them. So for now, it’s a two-QB race, and the rest of the class is wide open.
1. Alabama QB Bryce Young
It’s quickly becoming a one-man race as Young passed a big road test by throwing three TDs and avoiding any disasters in a raucous game at the Swamp. And unlike Mac Jones last year, Young is wisely spreading the ball around so he doesn’t have some pesky receiver up and steal the award from him.
2. Ole Miss QB Matt Corral
Rattler managed just two TDs in his game vs. Tulane. Corral doubled that total … by halftime. The Ole Miss QB continues to dominate, and the only thing better than the SEC West coming down to Nick Saban vs. Lane Kiffin would be a Heisman race between their two QBs, too.
3. Michigan State RB Kenneth Walker
Walker entered Week 3 at +7500 odds for the Heisman but racked up 189 yards and a touchdown as Michigan State upended Miami. Walker is averaging 8.7 yards per rush through three games and has quickly become the country’s most productive back.
4. Ohio State QB C.J. Stroud
It was an ugly day for Stroud, but his TD pass to Garrett Wilson proved decisive as Ohio State escaped another too-close-for-comfort game against Tulsa. The best news for Stroud is that the Buckeyes’ ground game had a huge day, which should make shutting down the Ohio State passing game a tougher choice for defenses going forward.
5. Michigan RB Blake Corum
The No. 5 spot in our rankings each week goes to an off-the-board candidate who deserves a little more attention, and Corum certainly turned heads in Michigan’s 63-10 win over NIU. Corum carried 13 times for 125 yards and three touchdowns in the win. He’s the first Michigan back to tally 100 rushing yards in each of his first three games since his position coach, Mike Hart, did it in 2007, according to ESPN Stats & Information research.
Under-the-radar play of the day
In the box score, it’s your average 94-yard punt return TD for Memphis‘ Calvin Austin III. In reality, it’s sheer confusion (and was later revealed to be a blown call). The punt bounds toward the end zone but is batted back into play by Mississippi State, which then appears to down it. Instead, Austin races in, scoops up the ball, then dashes 94 yards into the end zone.
Mississippi State appears to down the ball on a punt, but Memphis WR Calvin Austin III picks up the ball and returns it 94 yards for a touchdown.
Under-the-radar game of the day
It was an old-school defensive showdown between SEC East rivals Kentucky and Tennessee and … oh, no, that was actually Tennessee-Chattanooga, and the FCS Mocs had a 16-14 lead over the Wildcats early in the fourth quarter. Only a 31-yard TD pass from Will Levis and a 95-yard pick-six helped Kentucky stay undefeated. The Wildcats’ actual game against Tennessee should go much more smoothly.
Touchdown! Tyrell Ajian scores vs. Chattanooga Mocs